My Cousin Rachel (UK/US, 2017)

June 08, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
My Cousin Rachel Poster

The enduring popularity of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, My Cousin Rachel, relates to the ambiguity surrounding the title character. In his solid 2017 adaptation of the book, screenwriter/director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has captured the contradictions inherent in Rachel (played by Rachel Weisz) and kept her as fascinating on the screen as she is on the written page. My Cousin Rachel is a study in perception and perspective, a story that features a firm resolution while leaving its most compelling questions unanswered. Despite changing some details, the film is largely faithful to the source material and all the stronger for it. (Du Maurier’s objection to the previous motion picture, made in 1952 and starring Olivia deHavilland and Richard Burton, was that it over-romanticized things. That’s not the case here.)

My Cousin Rachel’s central character is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, recently seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), the dashing 24-year old heir to the sprawling Cornish estate of his older cousin, Ambrose (also Claflin). When an illness requires Ambrose to relocate to a warmer climate, Philip is left on his own, with only his godfather, Nick (Iain Glen), and his longtime friend, Louise (Holliday Granger), for companionship. Philip receives regular correspondence from Ambrose. In one letter, he states that he has met an astounding woman named Rachel. The next letter announces that he has married her. Then, later, a disturbing missive arrives – Ambrose is dying and he accuses Rachel of being the cause of his malaise. He pleads with Philip to visit him but, by the time Philip arrives, Ambrose is dead and Rachel has disappeared.

Not long after, as Philip nurses his anger toward his cousin’s wife, Rachel comes to the estate. Fully prepared to vent his fury, Philip finds himself disarmed by the newcomer’s beauty and gentility. He falls under Rachel’s spell and is soon madly in love with her. Her feelings for him are less obvious and, although there are hints that she may not be all that she appears to be, Philip orders a lawyer to draw up legal documents that will transfer the entirety of Ambrose’s estate to her once Philip reaches his 25th birthday.

The question about Rachel, both in the book and the movie, is: Who is she, really? Is she a conniving murderess who marries and kills Ambrose hoping to gain his fortune then, when that fails, moves on to his heir and repeats things? Or is she an unlucky woman guilty only of falling in love with an older man who dies of a brain tumor then, when visiting his kin, becoming enamored with his lookalike younger cousin? The story supports both analyses, with evidence to buttress either, but perhaps the best way to read Michell’s adaptation is to see Rachel as more complex than either a good-or-evil perspective would argue. Maybe she poisoned Ambrose and is doing the same with Philip while genuinely caring for them both. Could it be that she’s acting in the only way she sees possible to secure her own interests (Victorian era England wasn’t a bastion of female rights)? What makes Rachel’s character fascinating isn’t her standing as a Victorian era femme fatale but because she defies such easy categorization. Victim? Seducer? Manipulator? Witch? Even Rashomon didn’t offer this varied a kaleidoscope of interpretation.

One key to My Cousin Rachel’s effectiveness (in addition to Michell’s even-handed screenplay) is Rachel Weisz’s performance. Her portrayal satisfies every facet of her character. Weisz is many things at once: mysterious, beautiful, secretive, serene. At times, she seems open and innocent, a victim of cruel circumstances. On other occasions, she is cold and hard, almost conniving. We’re never certain whether these characteristics are part of a mercurial personality or whether Rachel (the character) is acting a part in her own carefully orchestrated drama. We are as confused and unsure as Philip.

Although the movie has a PG-13 rating, it’s a “soft” PG-13. The sex scenes are tasteful, more decorous than erotic. They get the point across without resorting to graphic detail. Sam Claflin flashes his buttocks in a medium-range shot while skinny-dipping. One character utters a gratuitous “f-word” for no apparent reason beyond eliciting laughter from audiences (and ensuring that the movie wasn’t saddled with a PG rating, which has been shown to scare away adult crowds). The movie’s gothic atmosphere is strong but not so all-encompassing that it overpowers the more sedate, dramatic aspects of the story. This isn’t Wuthering Heights.

It’s unlikely that any future production will eclipse Hitchcock’s Rebecca as the most successful movie made from a Du Maurier novel but Michell’s My Cousin Rachel is a strong candidate for second-place. With impeccable period detail, strong character development, superior acting, and a surprisingly fast pace, this film represents welcome counterprogramming to the typical loud and vacuous summertime multiplex fare.

My Cousin Rachel (UK/US, 2017)

Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Granger
Home Release Date: 2017-08-29
Screenplay: Roger Michell, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Cinematography: Mike Eley
Music: Rael Jones
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2017-06-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Brief Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: Drama/Mystery
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1